A major forest fire in northwestern Ontario that forced nearly all residents of a remote Indigenous community to leave their homes has worked its way closer to the First Nation, a government official said Friday.
Jonathan Scott, a spokesman with the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources, said the blaze dubbed Red Lake Fire 23 is burning eight kilometres south of the community of Keewaywin after growing by about 40 square kilometres since Thursday evening.
Scott said one positive factor was that favourable winds were blowing across the blaze on Friday.
“The good news for today is there’s going to be northwest winds, which will move the fire to the southeast, away from the community,” he said in a telephone interview from Dryden, Ont.
The fire, now estimated to be roughly 582 square kilometres in size, forced nearly all of Keewaywin’s 450 residents to be evacuated from the community over the course of the week.
Community resident and former chief Joe Meekis said all but a handful of people are now staying in larger centres in northern Ontario, such as Sioux Lookout and Timmins.
“Everybody’s out,” he said on Friday. “There’s only monitors there, 10 people maybe.”
Red Lake Fire 23 began as a small blaze a week ago about 40 kilometres from Keewaywin. But with higher winds came an accelerated fire that was soon approaching the community’s borders.
Smoke began drifting into the First Nation, prompting residents to close windows and shut down air conditioners.
Ultimately, the chief declared an emergency and the initial transfer of babies, pregnant women, and children under five and their families began.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, a total of 227 people were flown about 330 kilometres south to Sioux Lookout, which has declared its own state of emergency aimed at defraying the cost of helping the evacuees.
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More than 200 other residents were flown to Timmins, Ont., on Thursday, Meekis said.
Scott said ministry staff are on scene trying to contain the blaze, noting that weather conditions are expected to remain warm and dry in the coming days.
“Crews are placing sprinklers on areas of the community as a precaution,” he said. “And they’re looking for aerial … opportunities as well.”
Keewaywin’s last full evacuation occurred in 2011. While the community was spared, damage to the surrounding area was significant.
The latest information from the Ministry of Natural Resources indicates there are 26 active fires in the northwest region of the province, with eight that are not under control.